Who was William Koehler?
William Koehler was a dog trainer for over 50 years. During his career, Koehler trained dogs for the army, Walt Disney Studios, and wrote 6 books on the subject of dog training. While he passed away in 1993, his training methods are still used by many today. Koehler’s techniques are effective, or else he would have not been so successful in his career. Although Koehler’s method works, it is criticized by many for its excessive use of force and harsh corrections.
The Koehler Method:
The Koehler method of dog training relies heavily on the use of the leash and choke chain. I have not read all of Koehler’s books, but I have read The Koehler Method of Dog Training. In the introduction, this trainer makes it very clear that he is not a fan of using treats in training, which he refers to as the “tid-bit training technique.” He does encourage the owner to profusely praise the dog when the dog obeys so the dog knows he has done well.
Koehler emphasizes early on in his book that most dogs do not want to do as they are told just to please their masters; rather, they need to be taught the consequences of not obeying. It is true that most dogs don’t want to do as they are told simply to please their masters, but there are ways of teaching behaviors that use motivations that are meaningful to dogs.
One issue for people with puppies who wish to use this method is that Koehler recommends beginning training once the pup is at least 6 months of age. Since most people get new puppies when they are around 8 to 10 weeks of age, waiting this long wastes a whole lot of valuable time that could be used to introduce the puppy to training.
This method of dog training begins with teaching the dog to be attentive to the owner on a long line. Basically, you have the dog on a long line, and you move about. If the dog is not paying attention, they end up getting checked by the long line. This attentiveness training sets the foundation for the basic obedience commands.
The basic obedience commands are taught through use of the leash and by manipulating the dog into position. As stated above, no food rewards are used, even when teaching new behaviors. Excessive force is recommended when ‘necessary.’ For instance, if a dog is reluctant to sit, Koehler advises training with the dog next to a fence to avoid the dog’s ability to struggle. Then, he recommends that the owner “put a lot of downward pressure on the rear and sufficient upward pressure on the leash to make his breathing quite a chore. Don’t ease up until he weakens and sits.” (The Koehler Method of Dog Training). Needless to say, it is much kinder and just as effective to teach a reluctant dog the sit command with a food lure or through clicker training.
When teaching the down command, Koehler once again uses lots of force and corrections. For dogs that don’t want to lay down on command, he recommends being in front of the dog, so if the dog doesn’t obey a correction can be given. If the command is given and the dog doesn’t listen, but moves to the down when the owner gets into the position to issue a leash correction, he states that this should be corrected as well, as the dog obviously is trying to avoid the correction without obeying as soon as the command is given. Sadly, he fails to consider the real possibility that the poor dog simply hasn’t learned the word ‘down’ yet but recognizes when he gets a harsh correction and is trying to avoid the pain. This theme of harshly correcting the dog before the owner is certain that the dog knows what commands mean is seen throughout the book and is unfair to the dog. Why should a dog be corrected for not obeying a command when the dog didn’t know what the command meant in the first place?
Controversial Aspects of the Koehler Method:
Koehler’s training requires the use of either a choke chain or a prong collar (he seems to prefer choke chains). Both collars are considered inhumane by many. Choke chains in particular can damage a dog’s windpipe, but people who quickly snap the leash and release the pressure, which is recommended by most trainers who use a choke chain, may limit damage to the windpipe. I had also previously read that lifelong use of a choke chain can damage the muscle on a dog’s neck, and I believe this was when the collar was correctly used. So while damage to the windpipe may be avoided by correctly using the collar, muscle damage can still result. Prong collars and choke chains both provide uncomfortable (possibly painful) stimulus to train the dog, and some people are against the use of any such tactics when handling dogs. Personally, I think that prong collars and choke chains can be very useful, particularly the prong collar, but I don’t like the way Koehler uses them.
The use of the choke chain is not the most controversial aspect of Koehler’s method. When training the recall, Koehler recommends a throw chain, which is flung at the dog when he does not come on command. But this is not the only time this trainer suggests physically punishing a dog into behaving. For dogs that bark when left alone, Koehler recommends beating the dog with a leather belt. If a dog is difficult to housebreak he advises taking the dog to the place where the accident happened and smacking the dog while holding his face at the mess.
One of the most disturbing recommendations of Koehler is when he advises owners to dunk their dog’s head in water to break him of digging holes. Koehler states that if a dog digs a hole, that the owner should fill the hole with water, take the dog over to the hole, and dunk his head in the water and hold him there until the dog really feels that he is about to drown. Needless to say, I don’t know many people who would feel comfortable doing this to any living creature, let alone a beloved dog.
When justifying his methods of correcting bad behaviors, Koehler mentions that often times if the dog does not learn to stop doing the said behavior, euthanasia is the only option left. While behavior problems can result in a dog being given up to a shelter or put to sleep, there are many gentler methods that won’t damage the relationship between dog and owner that are very effective. Koehler ignores this, and offers his harsh punishments as the only alternative.
Overall Thoughts on the Koehler Method:
Corrections can be very useful when training a dog. I have used electric collars, prong collars, and other forms of correction when training my dogs. The trouble with Koehler’s method of training is its over reliance of corrections and the use of abusive measures for many problem behaviors. All the training techniques revolve around some sort of physical punishment, whether that be the use of a throw chain, choke chain, or a leather belt. While such forceful methods can be VERY effective, they can also be very damaging to the dog, and can create problem behaviors in the dog, such as fear and aggression. For dogs with behavioral issues, Koehler’s solutions are nothing more than animal abuse. Many effective, humane techniques of dog training exist, but they are not to be found in the Koehler method.
With this said, I do want to mention that I think Koehler was doing what he thought best. Several of the recommendations in his book for dogs with severe behavioral issues are abusive, but I believe he thought his solutions were the best way to prevent dogs form being killed over training issues. So while I do whole-heartedly disagree with many of the methods, I think he did his best to save dogs from being abandoned or killed for behavioral problems. Today, we have better ways and more options in training, so no one should have to resort to such harsh tactics.
Koehler’s book is an interesting read for anyone who wishes to see just how far dog training has come, but not the book I would recommend as a “how-to” manual to produce a well adjusted, happy dog.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out: The Koehler Method: Should I use it on my Puppy?, where we further delve into the Koehler Method.
The Koehler Method of Dog Training